10 Things to Help Black Students Prepare for Life at a PWI

Michael B. Harris/Getty Images
Michael B. Harris/Getty Images

I regret not attending an HBCU.

If I could do things over, I would have accepted those offers from either Howard or Hampton University and had a college experience devoid of the constant assaults on my humanity by way of microagressions and covert racism.


Attending a PWI (predominantly white institution), I was ever aware of the fact that I was an “other.” Often, I was the only black student in my class, and when my fraternity wanted to host events, we were forced to jump through hoops that white Greek organizations did not know existed.

Now, working at a PWI as a faculty member and administrator, I try to do for my students what I wish someone had done for me: prepare them for the challenges that come along with the reality of life at a PWI as a student of color.

If I could give an intellectual going-away gift to every black freshman headed to a PWI this fall, in addition to a bottle of Louisiana hot sauce (the cooks at PWIs don’t know how to season the damn food), I would include the following:

1. The Divine Nine by Lawrence Ross

Part of what kept me sane at a PWI was my membership in a black Greek-letter organization. I honestly do not know how I would have made it without the support and companionship of my frat, and even now, being a member of my beloved fraternity continues to open doors for me professionally and socially. This is not to say that it is impossible to make it as a non-Greek at a PWI, but for me, it was essential.

2. Ain’t I a Woman by bell hooks

It is not an overstatement to say this book fundamentally changed the way I thought about race and gender. Written while she was still an undergraduate, hooks’ first book opened my eyes to fact that the experience of black women is fundamentally different than that of black men. On the campus of a PWI, black women face unique challenges because they must contend with both racism and misogyny. It is important to understand the history of that tension, and hooks’ text articulates this with clarity and power.


3. Medical Apartheid by Harriet A. Washington

Many black students desire to enter the medical profession, and this text tells the important story of how black bodies were used and abused by American doctors. This is required reading for anyone interested in medical ethics and the medical field.


4. The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson

My grandmother used to tell me that it is important to not only know where you are going, but where you’ve been. This book is a beautifully written reminder that many sacrificed for us to have the educational opportunities we take for granted. I am ever grateful to the ancestors who kicked open doors that I may walk through them.


5. The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

Every black American needs a Baldwin book on the shelf. This is my go-to because it gives voice to the anger I often felt as a black man at a PWI.


6. The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois

This book opened my eyes to the notion of double consciousness, what Du Bois describes as the “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”


This is a feeling that many feel on the campuses of PWIs. To me, Du Bois is the greatest intellectual America has ever produced, and he uses his brilliant mind to articulate the lived experience of black people in America.

7. Last Chance U

Filmed in Scooba, Miss., this Netflix original documentary series follows the East Mississippi Community College Lions. With a roster full of college athletes who either struggled academically and were unable to stay in a Division I school or did not perform as expected on the football field, this series is called Last Chance U because for these student-athletes, every game is a tryout and every class is important. The educational systems of virtually all of these athletes failed them. They were raised in environments where their athletic brilliance set the stage for them to be pushed through decrepit schools with insufficient academic training. As many of us take pride in the football teams of our respective schools, it is important to remember that student-athletes are exploited and discarded if they do not perform on the field.


8. We Are Never Meeting in Real Life by Samantha Irby

There is a mental health crisis for black students at PWIs. If you’re going to make it, you need not only “grit”—you need laughter. Irby’s book is the funniest thing I’ve read in years. It’s not LOL funny; it is LMBAO funny. Joy is needed. This book provides.


9. Blackballed by Lawrence Ross

The second book by Ross to make this list is an astute examination of the politics of race on America’s campuses. I find it insightful and illuminating. It is essential reading if you want to know what to expect and have an interest in the historical reasons that things are the way they are today.


10. Higher Learning

I was shook the first time I saw this film. It lays bare the fragile nature of white masculinity and serves as a primer on all the different political ecosystems one must navigate on a college campus.


Bonus: the Holy Bible

Because Jesus is on the main line, and you better call him if you want to get yo’ ass through the next four (or five) years.

Lawrence is a philosopher of race at his day job and a curator of dopeness when time allows. Words in The New York Times, Slate Magazine, and others. Email him at law.writes@gmail.com



God, was college culture shock for me. I came from going to predominantly Black schools and living in predominantly Black neighborhoods for my entire life. I am still glad (glad isn’t exactly the right word, really) that I went to a PWI and getting shocked at age 17 instead of getting shocked even worse when starting my first job.